Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts at McMullen Museum

by Dante Keeler


The Boston College McMullen Museum of Art currently exhibits the largest-ever collection of illustrated medieval and Renaissance texts in North America. Nancy Netzer, the director of the McMullen, and her staff (including over 25 student ambassadors) have worked hard to bring the new museum to life for the Boston community. Together with Harvard’s Houghton Library and the Gardner Museum, the three museums showcase illustrated manuscripts important for medieval and renaissance persons from all walks of life. Experts from over 18 institutions in the Boston area selected the texts, organizing them into three categories: Manuscripts for Pleasure & Piety (at the McMullen), Manuscripts from Church & Cloister (Harvard), and Italian Renaissance Books (Gardner). Boston College’s exhibit primarily focuses on bibles, commentaries, prayer books, and other texts written for lay people, while also displaying a few paintings, drawings, and an immense carpet. Most of the manuscripts are from the 15th and 16th centuries due to the surging literacy rates during those times, but some pieces date as far back as the 12th century.


Nancy Netzer and her staff have devoted much of their time to making the museum accessible and interactive to the modern audience and the effort shows. On the second floor, iPads with expandable photos of the texts line the walls, a small theater plays a short info clip about creating these works of art, and a film that explains the finer details of certain manuscripts. In addition, the McMullen has an advantage in terms of the relevance of its subject matter: by focusing on laypeople, the entire exhibit is effective in showing the important books had in an everyday person’s life 600 years ago. There are manuscripts for the Mass, common and ornate Bibles, and psalters (illustrated prayer books), all beautiful and often in various stages of completion. Of special interest are the highly intricate and intimate books of hours (Books of Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary), prayer books which separate the day into eight sections and detail the lives of Catholics and everyday believers. These texts, along with Biblical commentaries, liturgies, and Gospels, invite the modern audience into a new view of medieval and Renaissance life.


On the third floor, in a narrow gallery, the McMullen exhibits texts on medieval law, education, and political and literary entertainment for the aristocracy. However, in the middle of the room, a long glass case extends almost the entire length of the room, and contains an extremely long and ornate scroll. The Chronique Anonyme Universelle, or Universal Chronical in French, lavishly depicts the history of the world from Adam and Eve to Pope Urban IV. The scroll has thousands of lines of text with pictures showing various scenes of human history, mainly biblical, with some myths as well, including the Fall of Troy and King Arthur. The stabbing of Julius Caesar and The Last Supper are highlights, appearing in about the middle of the Chronique. For some unknown reason, the Chronique is incomplete: about twenty five lines of text are missing, and probably pictures of William the Conqueror and Godfrey of Bouillon.


Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for museums and historians, several of the texts are incomplete. When the texts made their way to North America, many of them suffered biblioclasm, or division into smaller parts. Owners or sellers of the text could often make more money on the texts by tearing out sections and selling those at increased price. Thus, many texts are still incomplete and appear without bindings.


Boston and Boston College are very lucky to have an amazing collection of important texts that played crucial roles in the lives lay people centuries ago. They are a physical manifestation of the faith of individuals and the ethos of culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and can illuminate what life was like during those times for a modern audience. 

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